A Hunter's Lament: When Tribal Rights Clash With The Law Of The Land

Recent articles on this site have detailed a trend among Tribes to expand their wild game hunting activities beyond the boundaries of reservations. Tribal hunters in various regions are exerting long-held treaty rights and are pursuing game on land owned by the government or private parties, but within the Tribe’s traditional hunting grounds. Not surprisingly, this has become a source of friction between Tribal hunters and their and non-Tribal counterparts, who are obliged to obey a different set of regulations and restrictions for their hunts. One instance of such friction is reflected in the following letter, sent from a non-Tribal hunter in Washington state:

The Tribes feel they should be allowed to hunt on the same land we do, using their laws. I have seen first hand what these rights amount to. I elk hunt in the Colockum Wildlife Area. My family settled in this area around 1880. My Uncle owns the land that remained, and he sees what goes up and down the road. What they saw a lot of this summer was truck loads of dead elk. Starting at the end of July, as soon as antlers mature and harden, local Tribal hunters are decimating the Colockum elk herd. On the last Friday of deer season in the area, my dad and brother saw Indian hunters with a very large 7 point bull in the back. Nothing was open at the time for elk, but the elk was dead nonetheless. Relatives have seen truck loads of spikes, the only size bull us non-Indians are allowed to shoot. Just when we thought the practice of not shooting big bulls was starting to pay off, the Tribe is decimating them. Hunting in this area has been going downhill for the past 3 years. Now we know why. Soon, elk in the Colockum will go the way of salmon, crab, and the Nooksack elk herd, which was nearly wiped out by Tribal hunters.

These are strong opinions – which are of course countered by equally strong opinions regarding Tribal rights and past injustices. As Tribes and their members seek to more fully exercise sovereign or treaty rights – particularly in an era of economic distress and diminishing natural resources - clashes of interests with non-Tribal entities are likely to become more frequent. Legal battles are divisive and expensive, and rarely produce a completely satisfactory outcome for any party. With regard to the expansion of hunting rights, it may well profit everyone concerned to instead seek both communication and compromise, and find ways to share the bounty of the land without battling in court.

Models do exist for such cooperation, interestingly enough in closely-related areas such as fishing. Numerous agreements exist between Tribal and federal/state governments for the management and utilization of fish and shellfish resources, with a resulting balance that allows for reasonable annual catches for Tribal and non-Tribal fishermen alike. Applying these concepts to hunting, Tribes may have an opportunity to partner with non-Tribal hunters in developing game ranges for mutual benefit. Tribes blessed with lands populated with game have both a natural and economic resource which, if properly managed, could bring significant revenue from hunters and tourists while preserving and enhancing the environment and wildlife population. There are no significant legal impediments to such partnerships – it is only a matter of will.

Southern Ute Tribe Expands Hunting Onto Public Lands

Members of the Southern Ute Tribe have long hunted game on the Tribe's reservation land in southwest Colorado. Starting in 2009, Tribal hunters will begin pursuing quarry further afield -- they will hunt on public lands, exercising long-dormant rights under a century-old treaty with the federal government. Under the 1874 treaty known as the Brunot agreement, the Utes relinquished 4 million acres to the United States but retained the right to hunt on the land for "so long as the game lasts and the Indians are at peace with the white people."

One hundred thirty-four years later, the Southern Utes are invoking those rights. "It's really not as much about the animals as it is wanting to protect the treaty rights and the Tribe's sovereign authority," said Steve Whiteman, the Tribe's wildlife management director. Under the agreement, Tribal members don't have to acquire a state permit to hunt on public lands, and the Tribe will serve as the regulatory body overseeing the hunter’s activities. The 1,400-member Tribe's plans have prompted opposition among non-Native hunters, who fear the Southern Utes will hunt year-round or trespass on private land.

The Los Angeles Times has more details on the plan for hunting on public lands.

Find more information about the Southern Ute Tribe.